Home Page arrow Chess Life Online arrow 2012 arrow August arrow All for Doughnuts & Coffee (or Not): Volunteers at the US Open
All for Doughnuts & Coffee (or Not): Volunteers at the US Open Print E-mail
By Al Lawrence   
August 22, 2012
Dewain Barber & USCF President Ruth Haring
You’d expect that if you shelled out for a plane ticket or two, took a week off work, then got up early to argue the finer points of USCF finance, scholastic chess, or tournament rules—someone might lay out coffee and a doughnut for you. When I hold my neighbor’s ladder for 10 minutes while he changes a floodlight, I get lemonade. But every year, the chess volunteers from your state make the August pilgrimage on their own dime and don’t expect so much as a plain double-chocolate without sprinkles for their troubles. If I hadn’t seen it happen for so many summers and didn’t know so many of the faithful, I’d be dumbfounded. Of course they don’t get a fraction of the attention that the tournament winners do. Nobody stalks them for photos.  And those high-rated sharks can even win enough money to buy their own doughnuts.

A lot goes on every year at what most of us simply call the U.S. Open. USCF’s convention is really a bundle of events. During the two-weekend sandwich of nine days, there are more open chess tournaments than most of the Midwest towns I grew up in offered in a year—well, actually, in several years. Most of these side events are one-day tourneys. All end in time for viewing or playing in the evening round of the main event. There are the important invitational youth events—the Denker Tournament of HS Champions and the Barber K-8 Champions. Another big part of the mix can’t be listed on the carefully detailed USCF schedules: reuniting with rarely seen chess pals and meeting new ones. But besides all of this, there’s the legislative side to the annual get-together, workshops and meetings—lots of workshops and hours of meetings.

Workshops, open to all, are held every year, Wednesday through Friday, during the morning hours. (Yes, there is a morning at the U.S. Open, at least for some.) These workshops provide a moderated forum so that interested members can discuss topics to be considered by the official delegates from all over the nation at their governance pow-wow on Saturday and Sunday. The goal of the workshops is to boil-down hours of discussion into some well-thought-out positions for the Big Show on the weekend.

Many of the workshops are committee meetings as well. And the moderators of all these forums are committee chairs, staff and USCF officers.  In Vancouver, USCF Director Bill Hall was frequently at these workshops. So was USCF president Ruth Haring. If the topic was financial, USCF VP of Finance Allen Priest was there with the facts, figures, and explanations.

The plan is longstanding and logical. It worked well in Vancouver. I’ve observed these organizational assemblies going back to 1981. Before this one, I took a decade off (during which I still bought myself doughnuts.) So I was in a position to notice change. I was, you could say, observing a classical championship game after taking a two-hour lunch.  With this perspective, I can offer a few reasons that this year was so constructive.

Some things are simple human-physics–plenty of chairs and space for everyone, microphones in the right rooms, and plenty of cool air. When USCF took over directly organizing the Open, it standardized these important basics. Kudos to USCF COO Pat Smith. Other things relate to a general tolerance and open-mindedness. The attendees have to be more willing to hear the other side than our congressmen are these days.

USCF has always had hardworking volunteers with passionate opinions. Moderators have to be good. In Vancouver these discussion-leaders were to a person well informed and skillful—and very good at handling potential conflict. During Wednesday’s two-hour meeting on scholastic chess, both Tom Brownscombe (Scholastic Council Co-Chair) and Steven Shutt (who actually deserves his fancy title of Council Emeritus, even though it gives the impression that he is either triplets or a multiple personality) were cool, articulate, and in control. A good example of the way workshops function was EB member Jim Berry’s campaign to reduce the cost of life membership, normally $1,500, to $500 for young teenagers in an attempt to mitigate the traditional chess-drop-out age. Jim was allotted time to present his proposal. There were comments from Priest and a general discussion. In the end, a workshop vote failed to endorse the idea. When the motion came up on the floor of the delegates’ meeting on Saturday, the idea failed to pass in the main room as well.

Friday afternoon’s Publications/CJA meeting, chaired by USCF’s Publication Director Daniel Lucas, featured the new, full-color-throughout layout of Chess Life magazine. This dramatic upgrade was negotiated without additional cost to the organization. There was applause for this achievement in several meetings in Vancouver. USCF’s CFO Joe Nanna was central to the negotiations with the printer. Workshop attendees then discussed what makes a good cover for Chess Life for Kids, USCF’s magazine for those 12 and under. Also at this meeting, Chess Journalists of America announced its 2012 award winners. Mike Klein was honored as Chess Journalist of the Year. Find the complete list of winners and more info on the organization here.

Coming back after a decade, I couldn’t help but feel that the crowd at the open had gotten more consistently business-like over the years. Board members, the most harried of volunteers, were patient and cogent. Of course, USCF operations has had a very good year, some $250,000 to the good. At the Open meeting of the executive board, when I asked USCF VP Gary Walters to explain a complicated legal situation between USCF and FIDE stemming from the most recent FIDE presidential election, he put it all in three or four startlingly clear sentences without so much as an “um.”

The upshot: whatever the arbitration board’s finding, USCF is indemnified against any financial harm. Those who know Gary (I didn’t) were unsurprised. He’s an accomplished litigation attorney and a chess correspondence champion—not to mention his being a silver-star winning infantry company commander in Operation Desert Storm. He’s hardly the type to be rattled by a mere FIDE lawsuit.

President Ruth Haring was nearly everywhere. I couldn’t corroborate it, but some witnesses reported her to be in two meetings at once. Even when it wasn’t “her meeting,” she sat in the audience, asking questions.

A lot of issues at Vancouver depended on Allen Priest, who made his first report as VP of Finance, and was all straight-ahead professionalism. At the weekend delegates’ meeting on Saturday, he was the main character in a work of little drama. Some motions had to do with changing USCF’s IRS status from 501(c)4 to 501(c)3. Both are nonprofit classifications. The main difference is that, if the change is ultimately approved by the IRS, which would take a while, donating money directly to USCF could be tax deductible. At present, donors can give in this way to the Chess Trust, which is an established 501(c)3. Thursday’s Chess Trust meeting had featured some back-and-forth on this topic. But the delegates’ meeting passed the motions legally necessary to progress with the change.
Scholastic Meeting

A completely non-controversial, unanimously-passed motion made legendary scholastic chess supporter Dewain Barber, who was in attendance, a life delegate.

The elephant calf in the ballroom with the delegates was the issue of changing who are USCF’s official board of directors. Traditionally, that has been the 150 or so delegates who are named by their states. That setup has always had its flaws. As Executive Director, I remember discussing the fact, that in the event of some emergencies, a special and expensive delegates’ meeting might have to be called, and quorums may be in doubt. Tax forms have always required the listing of the board of directors, but USCF doesn’t actually list the many delegates, who, as directors, could be named in a lawsuit against the organization.

On the other hand, some were concerned about concentrating this power in the EB. But bylaws Co-Chair, attorney Harold Winston, a former USCF president, told me “The EB will become the board of directors. But the board of delegates still retains its authority to set polices that govern the federation. So I don’t believe that there was a major increase of power of power to the EB.”

It’s true that under old rules, any decision of EB could be overruled. Under the new rules, when they take effect, the delegates would need to phrase any such overturning as policy decision. “I don’t think this is a major change,” Winston said. Another counterbalancing measure was to change EB terms from four years to three, and make elections to the EB annual, instead of every two years. (Elections for EB positions are staggered.)
Transferring the mantle of the board of directors to the EB legally required some motions restructuring the LMA—USCF’s Life Membership Asset fund, the financial counterweight to its ongoing liability to life members. “The (new) LMA was set up as separate trust that the EB can’t control,” Winston said. Trustees will be elected for a one-year term by the board of delegates” (those 150 representatives from around the U.S., as opposed to the Executive Board). LMA Committee Chairman Tim Redman, another former USCF president, wrote me, “If it doesn't work, the Delegates retain the power to change the Bylaws back to the previous format. I don't think that will happen.”

All this hard work was important to USCF. There were differences of opinion, of course. But USCF’s legislative method in Vancouver worked. Take a lesson, D.C.

Talk over these events and decisions with your USCF delegate, now that he or she is back home.

And it wouldn’t be out of place to spring for a doughnut.

Look for Al Lawrence's upcoming report on the US Open in Chess Life Magazine and find his previous CLO wrap-up here.